It’s the Christmas season, and this means that religious people will be inundated with images of baby Jesus nestled in the lap of his mother, the Virgin Mary. For pregnant women, Mary can be an intimidating role model. Not only did she get pregnant without even trying and remain a virgin for the rest of her life, according to tradition she did not experience any pain during childbirth. And, despite delivering a child without a midwife, anesthetic, or even a bed, she is consistently shown serenely embracing her child without a hair out of place. Kate Middleton’s postpartum photographs look positively disheveled by comparison.
Many of the images of the Virgin depict her suckling her newborn infant. It’s an image that can also obscure the emotionally and physically painful difficulties that many new mothers have when nursing children. And apparently it isn’t a model for all Catholic women. A new study published in the BMJ Global Health journal reveals that in Ireland, breast-feeding rates are higher in areas where there are fewer Roman Catholics. Ireland has notoriously low breast-feeding rates in general: Recent statistics show that only 56 percent of Irish women breast-feed, and that that number drops to 50 percent by the time an infant is six months old. Compare this to the almost 90 percent rate of women nursing their children in Canada.
Dr. Jonathan Bernard, a lead author on the study, in part attributed the causes of the discrepancy to religious culture. He told the Irish Times, “According to our findings, the large cultural influence of Roman Catholicism in Ireland may act as an underlying cause that can explain, at least partly, why Ireland reached such a low rate in the 1970s and why since, despite health policies, the rate increase hasn’t been faster relative to other Western countries.” Cultural forces, he explained, can affect whether and why women breast-feed.
How Roman Catholicism, a denomination known for its promotion of the family and idealization of motherhood, would contribute to declining breast-feeding rates is difficult to explain. Perhaps the reluctance to breast-feed is a hangover from a period in which authorities tried to limit lactation for fears that it acted as a contraceptive (more on that in a moment). Perhaps religiously-informed taboos about nudity and the body contribute to the social awkwardness that women feel when they breast-feed outside the home. It is impossible to say. Catholic critics of these findings have protested that it is modernization that has contributed to these statistics. As Bernard himself has said, more research is needed to confirm these findings.
This isn’t the first time that breast-feeding has been affected by social norms. Even in cultures in which breast milk was the only available source of nutrition, women frequently avoided breast-feeding because it carried connotations of poverty and servitude. For wealthy Greek and Roman women, wet nurses were by far the preferred means of suckling their infants. But it was also a source of considerable anxiety. Bucknell Religious Studies professor Dr. John Penniman, author of the forthcoming book Raised on Christian Milk, told The Daily Beast, “‘You are what you eat’ is the guiding logic behind ancient Greek and Roman theories of breast-feeding and child-rearing. Breast milk was understood to communicate from woman to child the ‘stuff’ of moral character, intellectual capacity, orthodox belief, and even ethnic belonging or kinship.”
This led to particular concern about the social status and origins of slave wet nurses. Many came from Asia Minor, and there were concerns that they would impart foreign values to Roman children. It is for this reason that Roman gynecologist Soranus argued that wet nurses should be chosen with great care. Penniman added, “Milk was viewed as a mechanism for perfecting the child’s nature. But it could also have the opposite effect.”
Among early Christians, breast milk became a central metaphor for instruction. The Apostle Paul draws on the cultural power of breast milk when he refers to himself as having fed the Corinthians milk. Penniman explains that Paul uses the idea of breast milk, with all of its connotations of kinship building and intellectual and moral formation, to unify his community. “As a group of people,” he said, “[they] share the same essence insofar as they share the same food.”
Even as early Christians used breast-feeding and mother’s milk as a key image for religious education, they still worried about the use of breast-feeding as a form of contraception. A letter from Gregory the Great written to Archbishop Augustine of Canterbury in the seventh century states that women should abstain from sexual intercourse while they were lactating, menstruating, or pregnant.
Part of the issue here was female sexuality in general. Lactation was widely believed to serve a contraceptive purpose, and Gregory, like many others in the church, was opposed to barren sexual congress. Joyce Salisbury has summed up attitudes to sex among the Latin Church fathers as a struggle in which women tried to drag men down to their inherently base and carnal level. Women’s sexual appetites, wrote the fifth-century biblical translator Jerome, were insatiable: “put it out, it bursts into flames; give it plenty, it is again in need.” Sexual abstinence during lactation, therefore, may have been a way to rein in female sexual appetites.
Curtailing lactation itself was another strategy. In medieval Norway women were prohibited from breast-feeding for up to three Lenten periods, placing the limit on breast-feeding to between 22 and 24 months. The Borgarthing Law, an 11th-century legal code stipulates that if a man tried to prevent his wife from breast-feeding and she insisted, she should be fined three marks (of silver) from her own property. Ethnologists have suggested that the reasons for the prohibition on extended breast-feeding was the widespread belief that lactation would prevent pregnancy and that women should be sexually abstinent when they breast-fed.
Olc Benedictow, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Oslo, has argued that the actual motivation was religious. People in medieval Oslo didn’t know that lactation prevented pregnancy, he argues, and adds that the real interest is in the allocation of food. During Lent pregnant and breast-feeding women were exempt from fasting. Benedictow argues that the prohibition is intended to prevent women from using breast-feeding as a pretext for avoiding their religious obligations.
Protestants, by contrast, were quite vocally opposed to the use of wet nurses. Puritan firebrand Cotton Mather didn’t just use breast-feeding as a metaphor for church attendance, he wrote that women who don’t breast-feed are “dead while they live.” A strong, somewhat hypocritical statement from a man who employed wet nurses for some of his own children. And one somewhat out of step with his contemporaries: As Janet Golden has written, breast milk was said to have been the most advertised product of the 18th century.
Breast-feeding continues to be something of a religious taboo. In 2012, a Georgia woman was expelled from church for breast-feeding. According to reports her pastor likened her conduct to stripping and described her conduct as lewd. It appears we still have some ways to go.